Latino audiences go to the movies more than any other ethnic group in the United States. But once they’re in the theaters, the odds are that they’re not watching leads from the same culture. Only 3% of leads in top films are Latino, despite Latino citizens making up 18% of the U.S.
Representation of Latina women in film is even more sparse. And when they’re on screen, Latina characters are all too often stereotypical — commonly the maid or the hypersexualized woman.
But representation is crucial for an inclusive world. When Latina actresses claim the leading roles they deserve, they’re not just paving the way for more Latinx actors to enter leading roles in Hollywood and beyond. They’re also inspiring future Latinx generations to break into new industries like technology and science, too.
Here are six Latina actresses who helped break the mold in the U.S. film industry.
1 Jennifer Lopez
Jennifer Lopez is one of the most prominent Latina celebrities in the U.S. — period. In the film industry, she became the first Latin-American actress to make over $1 million for a movie. That movie was Selena, a film that fittingly spotlighted the story of one of the most beloved Latin-American singers of all time.
The multi-talented J. Lo also topped the box office for The Wedding Planner and her album J.Lo in the same week, becoming the first woman in history to do so.
Lopez rose to fame when Latina actresses were even more underrepresented in the film industry and is still producing and playing lead roles in top films today.
2 Rita Moreno
The legendary Rita Moreno is undoubtedly one of the most successful actresses of all time. She has made history time and time again. In just 15 years, she became the third-ever EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) winner in 1977 and the only Latina to ever do so as of 2021.
In the course of doing so, Moreno broke barriers by becoming:
- The first Latina actress to win an Oscar (for her lead role in West Side Story)
- The youngest to achieve EGOT status until 2013
- The second of only three people to win all four awards as a performer
Also the first Latina Peabody Career Achievement Award winner thanks to her work in television, Moreno keeps paving the way for all the Latina actresses on this list and beyond.
3 Zoe Saldana
Zoe Saldana is one of the most active and successful Afro-Latina actresses in Hollywood today. She was the first and only woman of color to star in three of history’s top-grossing movies — all from the Avatar and Avengers franchises. Saldana still has at least five more movies planned with these franchises, in which she’ll play a leading role. Saldana is also well-known for her recurring role in the Star Trek franchise. With many major roles in sci-fi and superhero films, she’s proving that Latinas are far from stereotypes.
4 Sofia Vergara
Sofia Vergara is best known for her role in the American comedy series Modern Family, through which she shed light on Latina culture and even some of the hardships that immigrants mothers face in the U.S. Her performance in Modern Family made her the world’s highest-paid actress in 2020, contributing to a shrinking pay gap for Latina actresses. Now that Modern Family is over, Vergara is taking on more leading roles in film. Her next project, an animated film called Koati, will bring further representation to the U.S. by starring Latin-American talent and featuring Latin music.
5 Rosie Perez
Oscar nominee Rosie Perez was one of the top Latina and Afro-Latina actresses of the 90s, and she’s never shied away from taking on roles that tackle race and culture. In fact, her first major role was in Spike Lee’s controversial Do the Right Thing. Her breakout role was soon followed by a brilliant performance in White Men Can’t Jump, despite the studio’s concerns about her Puerto Rican background. Perez continues to be vocal about racial justice and rejects stereotypical Latina roles.
6 Rosario Dawson
From Sin City to Seven Pounds, Rosario Dawson ruled the 2000s, breaking barriers for Latina actresses. She’s one of the most versatile Afro-Latina actresses today, having shown off her musical talent in hits like Josie and the Pussycats and Rent. Today, Dawson continues her success with a focus on TV series, many of which have been widely praised. Her upcoming project, Ahsoka (a spin-off of The Mandalorian) is expected to be a major hit among Star Wars fans of all ages.
Paving the Way for Latina Talent
Latina actresses have been underrepresented in Hollywood for far too long. But now, Latina stars are breaking barriers faster than ever. Rita Moreno was a groundbreaking actress who proved the value of Latina talent in film. Today, stars like Jennifer Lopez and Zoe Saldana are continuing the legacy of Latina women with every major role they take.